Sharing the Gospel With Un-Churched People

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Lately my ministry has taken a new and notable turn.

I suppose if I wanted to pick a “start date” to the whole thing it would be a couple months ago when a man from our neighborhood walked into our church and decided to start regularly attending.  He and his wife work in law enforcement.  He grew up religious but she did not.  Neither one of them had attended a church in years.  But he was starting a new business venture and his mentors were religious folk who argued that you must have a proper relationship to the Almighty if you are going to succeed.  So he decided to give us a try.  I have been meeting regularly with his family since then and we have become fast friends.

Awhile after that, I received an email that a woman from a sister church had been electrocuted and was now in the burn ward here in town.  I found myself down by the hospital one day so I decided to drop by and say “hi.”  I discovered a rural couple who worked as farmhands and lived, or rather died, from paycheck to paycheck.  Their faith was brand new.  They had only been baptized on Easter Sunday, mere weeks before the accident.  As such, their faith was also fragile and an electrocution had provided an incredible challenge.  I walked out of the hospital that day vowing to see them as often as I possibly could.

Shortly after I got an email out of the blue.  It was from a family who lives 50 miles away from our church’s building.  They were both bookworms and very heady thinkers.  They grew up religious but had since walked away.  Now they were feeling called back so they did what bookworms do, which was a survey of all religious sects ranging from atheism to Islamic fundamentalism.  Somehow the Church of the Nazarene won and they now wanted to meet a Nazarene.  She had read everything on Nazarene.org!  I haven’t even gone to Nazarene.org in the last year.

Then last week I received a phone call from a woman who had just moved to town.  She was young and had been an addict for the last decade.  She met a pastor who introduced her to Jesus, after which she moved here to start a new life.  She needed a church.  She had moved in with some friends who were also former addicts starting a new life and now the group of friends wanted to make church a go, something about a higher power who wanted to freely give to them the self control they needed to live better lives.

So suddenly I am an evangelist, talking to people about Jesus who know nothing about him, or at the very least are very suspect of him and his followers.  Here I am explaining elementary truths of our faith to the unlearned and trying to defend our faith to the unsure and this twice weekly!

But I don’t feel like an evangelist.  Only one of those above groups are in anyway a product of my church’s ministry.  There was no program, no sermon, no outreach event, no bible study that drew these people in.  Instead I did something far more profound.  I answered my phone and replied to emails.

So too, I found that I have not done much of the talking with these four brand new Christians.  Instead I have tried to listen.  That is not always easy for me but it has come more natural in these times.  They all have incredibly different stories and backgrounds but all of them need a listener.  They needed someone to listen while they tried to figure out this new thing called, “faith” and what it meant for their families and lives.  In one conversation, I spent an hour just nodding my head, only saying the occasional, “oh interesting.”

I have walked away from these four groups thinking about ministry programs and practices.  I have all kinds of ideas about how to help their fledgling faith.  There are bible studies we could plug them into.  There is money we could give.  There are programs and outreach events and even church plants that will help connect them and their family members and friends to the work of the Nazarenes.

And yet, whenever I play those ideas out in my head they all end bad.  There is a certain powerlessness to my daydreaming, like imagining nightmares.  After all, I have been in this game long enough to know that church programs are most often the worst thing for a young faith.  In fact I worry that introducing them to more church people would destroy what little faith they had.  Good church people are just not understanding or compassionate enough to new Christians.

But deeper than that is the reality that people don’t need programs.  They don’t need events and they certainly don’t need to be a church’s, or even a Pastor’s, project.  In fact as I have entered hospital rooms and shared a meal with these people, I am all the more convicted that they just need presence.  They need someone who will show up in their hospital room, someone who will drive 50 miles to honestly try to tackle their questions, someone who will invite them over for dinner and games and tell jokes and laugh with them.

When I do that I think I am evangelizing.  I think I am representing the good news that “God is here!”  By showing up I am a parable of Jesus, who himself showed up to tax collectors and sinners.  I stole that idea I stole from Brian Hansen, by the way.

And the good news I share by showing up is, as John Wesley put it, “Best of all, God is with us!”

God is with us in our hospital beds.

God is with us in the depths of the despair of addiction.

God is with us when we start new business ventures.

God is with us when we ask tough and hard and deep questions.

God is with us when we sit around a campfire and make s’mores.

God is with us when we sit around a table and eat dinner together.

God is with us wherever we go and I hope that by showing up I can at least preach that great news.

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Beyond the Talking Points: Why I am Ignoring “50 Shades of Gray”

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Before I get going, that title up there is a complete misnomer.  I totally misspelled “gray” and I did it on purpose to show you how clueless I am about the movie (or is it book?).  I also am not really ignoring “50 Shades of Grey” because if I were, I would not be writing this blog.

Still, I have not read the book and do not plan to see the movie.  I have, however, read the Wikipedia synopsis.

On Wikipedia the description of the plot sounded like your average run-of-the-mill soap opera or harlequin novel, both things we don’t need more of.  More than that, I was rather dismayed that sensual violence was now mainstream.

Still, the plot synopsis mentioned that the couple broke up in the end because they were incompatible.  At the time I thought that line would be a good conversation starter on true intimacy and compatibility.  After all, even by the plot’s own admission signed contracts of submission and dominance seem to run counter to intimacy.  But without having read the book, that conversation is one I won’t have.

Still, I wish there was some way to honestly begin conversations about the increasingly violent and erotic fiction that now lines our bookshelves and fills our televisions.  Heck, last night I was watching Gotham, a prime time, network TV show based off of Batman.  A side plot of the episode involved two mobsters kidnapping a judge and having a scantily clad prostitute beat him with a whip.  That scene would have been the stuff of late night HBO just 10 years ago.  Now there it is, on Fox at 8.

Perhaps somebody should start an honest conversation about that.

But here is the thing:  Evangelical Christians cannot have that conversation.

And here is why:  We have wasted our conversation capitol on things that don’t matter.

Over the last 30 years Evangelical Christians have led the country in mean and nasty attacks about insignificant cultural wars.  We have picked fights on everything from gun laws, to Harry Potter to Presidential Elections to mainstream media to trying to prove Barack Obama is a secret muslim who wasn’t born in America.

All of these ridiculous debates have exhausted whatever respect we had.

So when a novel comes out about a man beating a woman senseless and that novel goes mainstream and becomes a movie and we start to say, “Hey, maybe as a society we shouldn’t go here” we are laughed at and dismissed as another bunch of crazy religious fanatics who still think Barack Obama is the antichrist.

With that said, this post is not meant to be a lament.  Although I am in mourning over the respect we have squandered, I would like to wipe away the tears and see the “50 Shades” phenomenon as an opportunity to reclaim some ground.

There is an opportunity here to have a real dialogue about true sexual intimacy.  That dialog would have to proceed from respect, seek understanding and clarify our support for sexual wholeness.  It would not be easy, especially for evangelicals who often get emotional and angry while we let our good sense catch up.

Still it is possible to begin that conversation and here is how I think it might work:

1)  I would actually read the book.  I would not do so because I want too.  Let me be clear, there are some TV shows, movies and books that have erotic or violent content that I want to watch and read.  And I avoid them for my own spiritual health.  This is not one of those books.  I have zero desire to read erotic romance.  However, if I wanted to speak truth into this “phenomenon” I would have to take the hit and actually read the book.  Until I did that, my opinion would be easily dismissed and I would look like an idiot.

2)  I would acknowledge there is something very real drawing mostly women to the novel.  And I would not readily dismiss that something as “sinful” like many are doing.

3)  I would begin with the end of the book where the couple break up, blaming “incompatibility.”  That would be a wonderful launching point to discussions about intimacy.  After all intimacy seems to be underlying much of the force driving all of this.

4)  I would admit I do not have the answers to true intimacy.  I have been married 6 and a half years (which feels like forever) and just this month found out my wife likes 100 Grand candy bars (or was it Take 5’s?).  There are times when we are of one mind and spirit (and flesh) and times when I look at my wife wondering, “Why did I marry her” and “The Good Lord only knows why she married me?”  There are times when I want to race home just to be in the same room as her other times when I wonder if I could get away with sleeping at the church from here on out.  I do not have the answers to intimacy and I would be very honest about my own rough road in sexuality and marriage.

5) I would be very apologetic and humble about the harmful views my church has espoused about intimacy.  Let’s face it, we have said and believed some really stupid things.  Let’s also admit that we currently say and believe some really stupid things.  In 2015 there are still Christians arguing you only have one shot at intimacy and it is your honeymoon night.  Before and after that, you are doomed.  I am really sorry those morons exist.

6) The goal of the conversation would be truth, not judgment or even doctrinal/ethical clarity.  I really believe “50 Shades of Grey” probably has something to teach us about intimacy, even if it just shows us something to avoid at all costs (which it certainly does).  I also think its popularity has something to teach us about each other.  If I were to engage this cultural expression it would be with the hopes of helping people find out what that was.

But as that title above states, I am ignoring this particular debate so this is all hypothetical.

Maybe one day they will make a “Sword of Shannara” movie.  Then I will be all game.  I loved those books as a kid!

**After I posted this I realized that this book was actually the first in a trilogy and that the couple do end up married in the end.**

What’s Pastor Kevin Reading: Stuff Christians Like

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I am not going to lie.  I like stuff, particularly stuff that makes me laugh.  That is why I enjoyed Jon Acuff’s “Stuff Christians Like.”  His 2010 collection of lists and diagrams and essays is one of the funniest books I have read in awhile.  He uses a brilliant blend of irony, sarcasm and heart touching roasting to unmask the hidden truths behind current American Evangelicalism.  This wonderful cocktail also makes “Stuff Christians Like” one of the most honest books I have read in awhile.

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Like many, I would love to think that Evangelicalism as a subculture is ceasing to exist.  However, Acuff proves me wrong.  Our subculture has gone nowhere, though it has changed drastically in the last 50 years.  And John Acuff describes and unmasks this new evangelicalism in brilliant detail.  He mocks everything from pushing on your eyes during prayer (which I do) to the different roles people play in prayer circles to metrosexual worship leaders, to feeding 3 year olds their body weight in fish crackers during “Preschool Life Groups,” (because we can’t call it Sunday School anymore).

The most brilliant aspect of the book (and his blog) is that its critique of evangelicalism is surprisingly current.  In my experience, most recent blogs and books about Evangelicals are 10-50 years too late.  They are still complaining about our legalistic, politically motivated, angry and fundamentalist past.

But that time has come and gone.  Now, as Acuff perfectly describes, we are an over-emotional, cliche drowned, hipster loving, logo touting movement of missional, radical, postmoderns.  In one of Acuff’s more brilliant observations, if there is a copyright infringement expert standing at the door to heaven, not one of us is getting in.  Likewise, our hesitance to boycott Abercrombie and Fitch for severe human rights violations shows how sold out we are to “soft, cotton T-shirts.”

So after reading, “Stuff Christians Like” I have to ask “what next?”  Now that our legalistic, fundamentalist and conservative movement has morphed into a showy, sentimentality infused, hipster monster, what is a devoted pastor to do?

I suppose the answer is that I will continue to do what God called me to do.  I will speak truth to the monster.  I certainly do not advocate for a return to our legalistic and conservative ways.  Instead by, “speak truth” I mean a way of living and being among the evangelical culture that questions its assumptions, practices and worldviews.  The hope is to bring about a truer form of faithfulness, one that transcends rock choruses and prayer circles and fish crackers in “life groups.”

This faithfulness might encourage a rock star metro sexual worship leader to lead a smaller, rural congregation from time to time.  It might include a deeper commitment to more ancient forms of prayer that move beyond “prayer circles.”  It might be more generous towards those churches that are so out of date they still call it, “Sunday School.”  It would probably mean not judging those who have to use the Table of Contents in their Bibles or come to church with a head cold.

It would certainly include treating copyright law respectfully and humbly and being inventive over clever.  And it might even suggest caution when it comes to corporations like “Abercrombie and Fitich.”

And it would most certainly mean not pressing your eyes out during prayer.